Nick is also just hilarious to talk to. Seriously.
Thank you Patreon Backers!
As a reward for our Patreon backers, to thank them for helping us reach our first few funding milestones, we’ve been sharing two videos a month with them. This interview with Nick is part of an interview series where we have conversations with the interesting folks we meet in our escape room travels.
We encourage you to back Room Escape Artist on Patreon for access to this type of exclusive content… and because you love escape rooms and want to support our mission to provide well-researched, rational, and reasonably humorous pieces that push the industry forward.
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Risa Puno is an artist who uses games to examine social dynamics. We spent a lovely April evening with Risa chatting about escape rooms over dinner at an adorable restaurant in the West Village. After learning about her upcoming project, an escape room that explores issues of privilege and inequity, we were eager to chat with her more.
We caught up with Risa this week to learn more about her project. Her KickstarterThe Privilege of Escape has less than a week to go!
Room Escape Artist: Tell us about your project!
This summer, I am working with Creative Time to create an interactive public art project called The Privilege of Escape that uses the format of escape room games in order to address issues of privilege and social inequity.
Who is Creative Time?
For over 40 years, Creative Time has worked with artists to realize public art projects that contribute to the dialogues, debates, and dreams of our times. Their free and open to the public artworks address major social issues, including the annual 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety…, the enormous sugar sphinx staged at the Domino Sugar Factory in 2014, Duke Riley’s Fly by Nightat the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy, a political haunted house at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in 2016.
Why address the concept of privilege through a game?
I am using the mechanics of escape room games to show that privilege doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win… but it does make it easier to play the game.
Games can operate as simple metaphors for more complex social interactions. This game will be a kind of experiential metaphor that can (hopefully) bypass the charged language around privilege.
The word “privilege” has become so loaded that it often triggers some pretty strong reactions that can shut down meaningful conversation. This game will be a way to open ourselves to the topic.
Why build this as an escape room?
I am especially interested in escape rooms because they are awesome and super fun (duh!), but also because I believe in their potential to communicate deeper meaning. There is something about the combination of group problem-solving with urgent competition that is remarkably impactful.
When I played my first escape room, I was surprised and impressed by how real my emotions were during game play—curiosity, excitement, anxiety, frustration, panic, discovery, delight, euphoria—it was all built in! Whenever I play, although my brain knows it’s just a fun game without anything at stake, I really do feel the highs and lows in a visceral way.
The emotions are heightened by the small group experience, which is rather intimate, and where people’s personalities can emerge in interesting ways. Escape rooms promote teamwork and communication by rewarding participation and collaboration. Even when I’ve played with strangers, I’ve felt a personal connection with them after escaping because we have shared both adversity and triumph together.
A game that requires collective problem-solving to get through uncomfortable situations seems like an ideal format for tackling difficult social issues. Plus, I think having to work to unlock resources and opportunities in order to advance yourself speaks a lot to the concept of privilege.
The ability to escape is inherently a privilege. The freedom to remove yourself from disturbing or harmful circumstances requires (at the very least) access to means, expectation of mobility, and the hope for a more favorable outcome. Our privilege often manifests in what we don’t have to worry about or the things we aren’t aware of. That invisibility can make it really challenging to address.
Escape rooms generally attract people with curious minds who are looking to challenge themselves. After all, escape rooms are all about thinking outside of the box, letting go of assumptions, and seeing things from a new perspective.
Since players usually like to spend additional time afterward to “froth” and talk through the tough puzzles and epic hero moments, I truly believe this format can spark meaningful discussion and communication that could continue beyond the game itself.
What is your response to someone who “doesn’t want to be lectured” while playing a game?
I agree! I wouldn’t want to be lectured while playing a game either. That’s not what this project is about. We are working hard to design interesting puzzles and develop an engaging narrative. It should be as active and exciting as a commercial escape room.
That being said, this is first and foremost a public art project. Privilege and social inequity are not issues that I take lightly.
I believe that games can be used to better understand how we relate to one another. I think that when people are having fun, they tend to be more open to new things. As an artist, my aim is to present a playable experience that allows participants to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
It might not be something everyone wants to take part in. I totally get that. However, if you’re interested in a memorable experience that might provide some food for thought, then you should definitely come play!
What are you hoping people feel as they walk away from this experience?
I imagine that people will walk away feeling a lot of the same emotions they do when playing regular escape rooms. After a really good game, I usually leave still feeling tingly from the thrill. I am hyper-aware of the world around me and my role within it. I want to relive every moment and puzzle, trade opinions with my teammates, celebrate the things we did really well, and talk through things that we could have done better.
I love discussing the dynamics between the players and how that affected our game. It makes me feel like we were in charge of our collective experience. I think that’s what having the privilege of escape is all about.
What are some escape rooms you are taking inspiration from?
I’ve mostly played escape rooms in around New York City, where I live.
I also enjoyed how Komnata Quest’s innovative use of physical space in Maze of Hakaina supported their theme.
I thought the hint delivery system in Alien Encounter at Clue Chase was particularly novel.
I felt transported by the introductory sequence of Deep Spaceat 5 Wits in West Nyack.
I enjoyed how Exit Escape Room NYC constructed the submarine setting for Operation Dive.
Practically every room I’ve played has offered fun and unexpected moments that I’ve found inspiring. It’s fascinating to see what kinds of narratives game designers come up with to create a sense of urgency and wonder.
As a builder and tinkerer, I especially love seeing exciting sets and hands-on puzzles that require spatial reasoning and visual logic. I’m a total nerd, so I definitely prefer puzzle-based challenges over tasks. I live for that “aha” moment when you realize what you’re supposed to do with something that’s been right in front of you the whole time. I’ve also become addicted to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you don’t know how many puzzles are left so you’re not sure if you’re going to make it out in time.
I’m taking inspiration from games I haven’t played yet too! Since there are so many rooms out there and so little time before this project goes live, it’s been super helpful to read your reviews on Room Escape Artist. Thank you!
While I’ll be too busy with this project to join your Escape Immerse Explore tours this summer, I totally want to do that next year!
I am most inspired by how creative and innovative the escape room community is. It’s wonderful to be around thinkers who are constantly trying to push the envelope with new ideas. Everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting has been so generous with information and advice. This is a fun, wacky, intense community. I am absolutely honored to become a part of it.
What are some of the other projects you’ve created that might give escape room players a sense of your approach design?
I make interactive installations and sculptures that often use forms of play to understand how we relate to one another.
For example, I made a fully functional 9-hole miniature golf course called The Course of Emotions: a mini-golf experience. Each hole presented emotional obstacles that you had to overcome, such as Worry, which featured a windmill with blades shaped like question marks to symbolize how when you’re worried your questions get in the way; a par-40 maze that literally spelled the word “Frustration;” and Insecurity, which required players to deal with physical insecurity by putting while standing on a seesaw platform.
I’ve also made my own version of the classic tilting maze game Labyrinth. My version was larger and two players were given identical mazes attached to the same tilting surface, so they had to negotiate and decide whether they were going to cooperate or compete. The title, Good Faith & Fair Dealing, comes from contract law. I really liked seeing how players communicated with each other because it said a lot about their relationship with one another. It was fun to see the differences between how old married couples played versus people who had just started dating. Roommates and coworkers were probably the best since they’re used to problem solving and compromising with one another. Once I saw identical twins play and they won together without speaking a word out loud!
Who else is working with you on The Privilege of Escape?
Brett is the best! His enthusiasm for all things puzzle-related is infectious!
Our working styles and skill sets are complementary. I have a lot of ideas. He’s been invaluable in sorting them into: fun versus confusing, reliable versus finicky, and feasible versus unrealistic.
I have experience with interactive play and analog/ tactile game design, but this is my first time creating an escape room. Brett’s technical expertise and first-hand knowledge of escape room behavior and logistics is incredible.
Brett is always patient and generous with his advice. He’s been an incredible asset to this project.
What design concepts are you currently thinking through?
This week I’ve also been thinking about what makes an escape room fair.
There is a surprising amount of acceptable frustration and confusion that is part of the normal escape room experience because the players’ sense of accomplishment is rooted in overcoming difficulties. This is different from anything I’ve built previously.
Another challenge at the moment is developing the narrative aspect of the experience. My past work hasn’t usually involved an explicit narrative and I don’t have a background in immersive theater. Thankfully Creative Time has my back for that (and everything else!). I’m really excited by how things are shaping up.
With Creative Time backing this project, how will the Kickstarter money be used?
The more money we raise, the more people can play! The funding gained through the Kickstarter campaign will be used to extend the run of the exhibition.
Creative Time is covering the costs of the project’s production and run, but we are facing a limited capacity due to the small-group nature of escape rooms. With your support, we’ll be able to extend the length of the project, allowing us to share this unique experience with as many people as possible.
By backing our campaign, you can get all kinds of nifty rewards too, including reserving a spot for yourself to play.
Your support also acknowledges Creative Time’s efforts to work with the next generation of socially engaged artists. Really, it’s a win-win for all of us who are interested in gaming, social justice, and art all rolled into one!
Where/ when/ how can players experience your escape room?
The Privilege of Escape will open this July in New York City. Creative Time’s projects are always free and open to the public, but tickets go fast and there usually ends up being a really long waitlist.
You can get your ticket in advance by backing the Kickstarter. Many of our reward tiers include it!
I’ve been a longtime reader of XKCD. (I think it’s been 11 years.)
So… I was pretty tickled last week when the seminal programming/ math/ science/ philosophy/ nerdery comic had some fun with escape rooms.
Hover Text: “The interactive experience is built on a single theological framework that unites Dante, George R. R. Martin, every major heist movie, and Erin Gloria Ryan’s “Kevin is dead” Home Alone theory.”
When we visited Scout Expedition Company’s The Nest in June of 2017, during its first run in Los Angeles, we were so moved that it left us truly speechless for hours after the experience.
We were so impressed with how the puzzles served as gates for telling a story that we started to think differently about what escape rooms could be. The Nest wasn’t an escape room, but it used elements of escape room-style gameplay to deliver an emotional, personal, and impactful story.
As Scout Expedition Company closes in on the final days of their Kickstarter to relaunch the show, we caught up with Creative Directors Jarrett Lantz and Jeff Leinenveber to learn more about version 2.0.
REA: The Nest is coming back!?
Yes, we’re taking everything we learned from the 2017 production and remounting the ultimate version of the show – kind of like a director’s cut. We’re really excited to be bringing it back!
How would you explain The Nest for someone who hasn’t experienced it?
In the story of The Nest, a woman named Josie recently passed away, leaving behind a storage unit filled with decades of her belongings. Audience members are equipped with a flashlight and explore Josie’s storage unit, searching through objects and listening to audio tapes to piece together her story.
We’re huge fans of immersive theater, narrative video games like Gone Home, Firewatch, or What Remains of Edith Finch, and escape rooms. The Nest mashes up certain elements from each. In its functionality, the show has a fairly similar framework to an escape room – experience a physical environment for a set period of time – with a little less focus on puzzles and a little bit more on story.
Tell us a bit about the new location. How does that change the piece?
The remount takes place in a beautiful, 1920s-era former storage building in Los Angeles. It really is the perfect location! Audience members will ride a freight elevator to one of the upper floors, where the show takes place.
Luckily, we have a bigger space to work with than before, so we’ll be able to create a few more distinct parts of the storage room while keeping the same rich, intimate environments that made the show so special.
What else will be different this time around?
We did 250 shows of the original version of The Nest, so now we can take those learnings to create the ultimate version from scratch. Since we’re in a larger space, the layout is completely different. Some of the scenic design is going in a slightly more abstract direction.
We’re also making each puzzle more of an interaction where we’re walking in the footsteps of Josie. Although the general story is fairly similar, we’re rewriting the entire thing to flow better
Who is The Nest for?
Originally, we’d targeted fans of immersive theater, but as the show went on, it was clear it resonated with a more general audience.
We had tons of enthusiasts of immersive theater and escape rooms, but also people who’d never done anything immersive before.
Visitors included lots of video game developers, parents with their adult children, and people on dates.
It seems that The Nest was really enjoyed by a broad spectrum of audience members.
How should escape room players, in particular, approach The Nest to get the most out of the experience?
Even though it shares some of the same elements as escape rooms, The Nest is something different.
There’s no countdown clock. Everyone gets to the end. The puzzles aren’t the most challenging. Instead, they are small interactions that place you into the shoes of Josie.
Our best advice is to approach The Nest like you’re about to experience a story. Feel free to slow down and enjoy it.
Why did you decide on Kickstarter as your platform for launching this?
The Nest really is a labor of love. We want to focus on executing the best creative vision rather than making a huge profit. As you can probably guess, this isn’t the best pitch for investors!
So, we decided to self-fund a big chunk of the show, with the remainder coming through Kickstarter. This will really help us to create the ultimate version, because we’re accountable to you, the audience, instead of to investors.
When will the remounted The Nest run? And for how long?
Our initial run will start in late summer for three months, but if ticket sales are healthy, we do have the option to extend. We’ll send extension announcements to those subscribed to our mailing list.
What made this the right time to bring back The Nest?
So much of immersive theater relies on finding the right space for your ideas. It was always our intention to bring back The Nest farther in the future, but we could not take this show just anywhere. Then the right opportunity presented itself… and here we are!
As we think back to our visit to The Nest, we have to agree with Jarrett and Jeff. The intimacy of the space and the way Josie’s story spilled out of it… that really captivated us.
We’re excited Scout Expedition Company has found the right next space for The Nest.
Jarrett and Jeff did an amazing job with the first iteration. We hope that this iteration will run long enough for us to see where they’re taking it.
Back The Nest on Kickstarter and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you. There’s less than a week left to do so!
Raymond Reints, Co-Founder and Production Manager, Gloeidraad, Utrecht, Netherlands
Cyril Voiron, Executive Producer for Ubisoft Escape Games, Ubisoft Blue Byte, Cologne, Germany
We’ll challenge these panelists to think about the impact of their work on their own businesses and the industry as a whole. Together with the panelists, we’ll consider what all creators can take away from their victories and their defeats.
Don’t have tickets to Up the Game? Use our discount code: UTG19REABLOG
This event is for those interested in, passionate about, or working
within immersive arts & entertainment in New York City. We’re
calling all creators, storytellers, directors, engineers, artists,
designers, writers, performers, event planners, producers, and more.
Lovers of immersive entertainment are certainly welcome as well.
Wonderful conversations. This is a chance to give and get recommendations for escape rooms, shows, LARPs, games, VR, AR, and other fun experience in New York City. This is a chance to find collaborators, consultants, and beta-testers.
We encourage you to bring your work. At our February meetup, we had a tabletop game in beta. If your project is compact, or can be made compact, please feel free to bring it with you.
We appreciate Shades of Green and their hospitality. Please support them by purchasing food and drinks… and sharing checks to make it easier on their servers. Please make use of Venmo or PayPal… or hand each other cash.
Escape Room players Jasmine and Stuart Wheaton from Washington, DC recently played Puzzle Break’s Escape The Rubicon on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. We chatted with them about the experience.
Room Escape Artist: Can you give us a little background about yourselves as escape room players and cruise takers?
Jasmine & Stuart: We’ve done about 40 escape rooms, which includes our first and only escape room marathon in New Orleans last year with Room Escape Artist’s Escape Immerse Explore. We were nervous for that event but ended up having so much fun. We literally doubled our escape room count that weekend! We do escape rooms whenever we can now… but as you know it’s an expensive hobby and so we can’t all do over 700 *cough cough*.
We have been on a handful of cruises, but this one was by far the largest ship… huuuuuge!
Was the escape room a factor in your decision to go on the cruise?
We were already planning on doing a cruise. Having an escape room on board was a cool novelty that pushed us to choose that particular boat over another.
What was the process for booking the on-board escape room?
There were multiple booking times throughout each day, spaced out by 90 minutes. You could book online through the same web portal where you could purchase all other excursions and events. You could also book at the entertainment desk.
Whom did you play with? Tell us a bit about your teammates’ backgrounds in escape rooms and how they ended up playing this game.
We played in a mixed group of 8 people, composed of 4 groups of 2.
One group had played a few rooms in Kansas City before coming on the cruise. The other two pairs were completely new to escape rooms.
One beginner couple had heard of escape rooms before and wanted to try it out, since there was one on board.
The couple with experience had the same mindset as us: excited to see what a cruise ship escape room would be like.
One unique aspect about playing with strangers on a confined living space is that we saw them again over the course of the week.
Was that awkward?
Not really… it was such a big boat that we didn’t have to interact again if we didn’t want to. We could just say “hi” and move on.
What were your impressions of the experience? How did this game compare to what you expect from an escape room?
The set design was impressive, given it was on a boat. There was only one room (space is at a premium!) but it had a good look and feel to it, consistent with the theme. It was certainly more scenically impressive than many other escape rooms we’ve played.
The room was advertised in one video as having some of the “best technology in escape rooms.” There were a few big puzzle moments revolving around tech, but we had problems with some things being broken or too confusing. RFID tags and maglocks are standard tech, as far as we can tell. It’s cool tech, but not the “best technology in escape rooms.”
The gameplay was clearly intended to be team-oriented, as many puzzles required multiple people to complete them. We were given “tasks” to complete that fit in with the theme, but in reality we would just do a bunch of puzzles and then be told – either by the game or the gamemeaster – that we had somehow completed the task.
Either the room was extremely challenging, or usually everyone’s day-drunk by the time they make it to the escape room. The gamemaster told us that we were only the 7th group to beat it in 4 months!
Some of the puzzles were decent, but the cluing was poor for most of them. There was also one long, repetitive process puzzle… and the more we did of of it, the more we couldn’t help but think, “come on, why would all the crew members on the ship SPOILER REDACTED?!”
Who was “gamemastering” the experience?
One of the entertainment staff members was the gamemaster. We recognized her from other events around the ship. She stayed in the room the whole time, unenthusiastically giving hints and minor plot progression. Having multiple jobs to do around the ship every day is probably detrimental to quality gamemastering.
It was evident that the gamemaster didn’t have passion, hint-giving skills, or thorough knowledge of the game. (She had to call someone at one point to get the answer for a nonfunctional puzzle.)
Did the gamemaster give the players any background on Puzzle Break, the creators of the game, or other escape rooms?
There was a video-based introduction to the scenario and standard escape room gameplay (i.e. don’t use force.) We don’t remember any mention of Puzzle Break or the existence of escape rooms outside this one on the ship.
If you were on another Royal Caribbean cruise, would you book another escape room? And will the existence of an escape room on board impact your choice of future cruises?
Yes, we’d book one again… because it was a good deal at $20. It’s more affordable than most escape rooms and a fun thing to do when too sunburned for anything else! However, we would certainly consider it a nice-to-have rather than a selling point for a cruise. The chance to experience a different room aboard another ship would sway our decision only slightly.
Room Escape Artist Conclusion
Thank you, Jasmine and Stuart, for thinking through this unique escape room experience for our readers! We aren’t big cruise-takers… so the odds of us covering this game ourselves are near zero.
Escape rooms are a specialized business and a major undertaking. We respect Royal Caribbean for installing a game at all, let alone investing in something that looks good and adheres with current trends in escape room technology.
On the other hand, gamemastering is as hard as it is essential, especially when there’s a good chance that the players are a few drinks deep. It is a specialized job that necessitates training and requires practice. Maintenance should be assumed.
We love that there is an escape room available on these ships. We wish that the gamemastering and maintenance were more in line with the set design.
Finally… why in Poseidon’s name was the win rate so damn low? It’s on a cruise ship!
Last month I had the chance to run a private webcast for some of the college students participating in the Themed Entertainment Association’s National Design Competition.
These students were given 7 weeks to design and build an original 500-square-foot escape room… and they could only work in teams of 1 or 2.
During the conversation, they asked many great questions. I had set aside 45 minutes to talk to them and we ended up talking shop for 90 minutes.
Stream the Event
The presentations will happen on Friday, April 26th at noon Pacific (3pm Eastern). The awards are scheduled for 2:30pm Pacific. (This is a change from the original time of 3:30pm Pacific.)
You’ll be able to stream this on YouTube Live:
I genuinely have no idea what to expect, as based on their questions I only have vague ideas of what some of these students were hoping to create… but I am excited to see what they have produced.
What’s TEA NextGen?
According the organization’s website, “The NextGen Initiative of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) helps students and recent graduates find their way into the themed entertainment/ visitor attractions industry and facilitates TEA member companies’ ability to recruit from this fresh talent pool.”